Did `Alî execute some people by burning them to death? I find this confusing, because didn’t the Prophet (peace be upon him) decree that burning people to death is a form of polytheism?
Answered by Sheikh `Abd Allah b. Bayyah, professor at `Abd al-`Azîz University in Jeddah
And First published in islamtoday.net
`Ikrimah relates that some heretical rebels were brought before `Alî and he had them set afire. When news of this reached Ibn `Abbâs, he said: “If it had been up to me, I would not have burned them, because of Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) prohibited this, saying: ‘Do not punish with Allah’s punishment.’ I would have merely executed them…” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (6922)]
Alî was the Caliph, the Commander of the Faithful. He was being confronted by the challenge of the Saba’iyyah, a recalcitrant group led by a Jewish man named `Abd Allah b. Saba’ who was inciting people with the false doctrine that `Alî was divine. `Alî exercised his judgment in this extremely serious matter and ordered a fire to be kindled. He said on this occasion: “When I saw that the affair was an affair of evil, I had my fire kindle and summoned my aide.”
This was a very unique and singular case as has been pointed out by the eminent jurist al-Shâtibî, and its ruling cannot be construed in a general context.
Moreover, there is disagreement among scholars how this event really took place. Some give the opinion that he burned their bodies after executing them. Others state that what really happened was that he had openly resolved to burn them but never actually carried it out.
In any event, the decision made by `Alî on this occasion was the conclusion that he reached in the matter according to his own juristic discretion (ijtihâd).
Execution by fire has nothing whatsoever to do with polytheism, though it is prohibited by Islamic Law. Polytheism is to worship another deity besides Allah or to believe in the divinity of someone or something other than Allah.
Admittedly, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said when expressing the prohibition of burning people: “Indeed, fire is something that no one other than Allah may use for punishment.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (3016)] However, this does not mean that a person becomes a polytheist if he executes someone in this manner. What the hadîth means is that this punishment is the punishment of the Hereafter and should not be applied in this world. This is what we must believe.
We do not know for sure that `Alî actually executed those people with fire. There is a strong possibility that he only expressed an intent to do so or that he burned their bodies after executing them. If, indeed, he did burn them to death, then this is the ijtihâd of a Companion. This is a case where we have a decision arrived at by the Companion at variance with the textual evidence. We derive our legal rulings from the sacred texts and not from the decisions of the Companions when there is a conflict between the two. However, we recognize that Companions like `Alî were qualified to engage in independent juristic reasoning and that they acted upon that reasoning, and we believe that they were on right guidance.